PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey and state lawmakers begin the new legislative session Monday with a deadline to act — and soon — on two issues crucial to Arizona residents.
The more pressing one is to get sufficient votes for a drought contingency plan crafted by various interests to deal with the problem of declining water supplies coming from the Colorado River.
Most significant in the deal is a requirement for Arizona to leave some of the water to which it would otherwise be entitled in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. That is designed to keep lake levels from dipping below a certain point when Arizona would otherwise lose its allocation.
To do that, however, means someone who normally gets Colorado River water will not.
Some of that would be made up with purchases of water rights from tribes. Ducey, who gives his State of the State address Monday afternoon, has committed to putting up $35 million. And there also are plans — though not yet fully funded — to allow Pinal County farmers to replace some of what they will not get from the Central Arizona Project with groundwater from new wells.
But there is not yet actual legislation for lawmakers to consider. And there already has been some balking among various interests who question their cuts, as well as issues raised about whether cities should be able to take — and bank — water they do not need.
There also are questions about whether other sources of water should be considered in determining needs and allocations.
What makes the issue time-sensitive is that Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, has told all the affected states to come up with and ratify an acceptable plan by Jan. 31 or she will begin the process of having one imposed by the federal government.
One complicating factor, though, has been the partial federal shutdown, meaning certain federal officials are unavailable to answer questions about what might be acceptable.
New income tax rules
The other pressing issue is something lawmakers and the governor need to resolve soon so Arizonans can start preparing their state income taxes.
In late 2017, President Trump signed a law to reduce federal income tax rates for individuals as well as a boost in the standard deduction. But it also eliminated or curtailed various itemized deductions and subtractions that lower the taxable income and, by extension, the amount owed.
This is significant because Arizona is a “piggy-back” state, using the federally adjusted gross income figure as the starting point for preparing state returns. Arizona’s deductions generally mirror what’s allowed under federal law to make tax preparation simpler.
Ducey wants Arizona to alter its tax code to “conform” to the federal changes. But disallowing those state deductions would increase what Arizonans owe the state this year — the returns due April 15 — by at least $170 million.
That is proving unpopular with many lawmakers, led by J.D. Mesnard. The current House speaker and soon-to-be chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said there is little sentiment for the federal tax cut to become a windfall for Arizona.
Ducey wants to put those extra tax collections from Arizonans into the state’s “rainy-day fund,” a special account for lawmakers to tap when revenue collections fall below projections.
But time is on the side of Mesnard and other foes of Ducey’s plan: If they do not approve it, it means the current Arizona deductions remain, despite the change in federal law, a move that means no net increase in state taxes but some additional calculations by Arizonans when they file.
Education is again expected to take center stage at the Capitol.
Last year, lawmakers approved Ducey’s plan designed to boost average teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020 over 2016 levels.
But that law did not provide additional dollars specifically for salary hikes for nonteaching staff. And questions — and a lawsuit — remain about whether the state is meeting its legal obligations to provide full funding not only for classroom activities but also for capital needs ranging from building construction to repairs.
Lawmakers did agree last year to renew the current 0.6-of-a-cent sales tax for education beyond its current 2020 expiration date. But the approval by voters earlier this year of a ban on sales taxes on services or any new taxes — and the renewal is, in fact, a new tax — opens the question of whether some things now taxed, like restaurant service, will be exempt, cutting into the revenues.
Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, is looking at a new ballot measure that would not just clarify that issue but add another 0.4 of a cent, boosting funding for education by an additional $400 million a year.
There also is some sentiment to revisit the plan to hike income taxes on the top 1 percent of wage earners. A plan to do that was knocked off last year’s ballot after the Arizona Supreme Court said the legally required description did not fully inform petition signers of the full effect of the change.
The teacher strike last year, the one that pressured Ducey into coming up with his pay plan, continues to generate fallout among those angry with educators who walked out.
One bill by Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, would require the attorney general to investigate and punish teachers who violate the laws on political activities. Townsend also wants to make it illegal for school administrators to close a school in the event of a strike, regardless of whether they believe there will be sufficient staff on hand.
And Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, wants the state Board of Education to craft a code of ethics for teachers prohibiting them from not just endorsing candidates or commenting on legislation to introducing controversial issues that are not germane to the course or topic being studied.
There also is some pressure on lawmakers to revisit the statutes that allow for-profit entities to operate charter schools amid questions of whether there needs to be better financial and academic oversight for these operations that are technically public schools that get state aid.
It also remains to be seen whether supporters of vouchers of state tax dollars to allow students to attend private and parochial schools will be back this session with a new plan following the defeat at the polls in November of a proposal to remove restrictions on who is eligible.
School safety, gun confiscation
A closely related issue deals with school safety and crime in general.
Ducey attempted to get lawmakers to approve a comprehensive plan last year he said would prevent mass shootings, with the keystone being a proposal to let judges take guns from some people considered “dangerous.”
That plan, Severe Threat Order of Protection, would set up procedures to allow not just police but family members and others to seek a court order to have law enforcement take an individual’s weapons while they are locked up for up to 21 days for a mental evaluation. Ducey contends such a law could have prevented some of the mass shootings that have occurred elsewhere.
But lawmakers watered down the plan before finally killing it outright, with objections not just to taking away firearms but locking up people against their will for a psychological evaluation.
Ducey is expected to make another run at the issue. But there also is sentiment among some lawmakers to go in the opposite direction, following the lead of Florida, where legislators voted to allow school boards to let teachers with proper training be armed.
Lawmakers also are expected to take up the question of why Arizona has more than 40,000 people in state prisons.
Some legislators say this is a result of mandatory sentencing laws that took discretion away from judges, particularly for multiple offenders. But there also is some concern that some crimes that are now listed as felonies could be classified as misdemeanors, reducing sentences and improving the odds of probation.
Any move in that direction would generate pushback from prosecutors, who generally have argued that everyone who is in prison belongs there.
Finally, there is the question of whether the recreational use of marijuana should remain a crime. A 2016 initiative to allow anyone to use the drug came up short.
One thing that could pressure legislative action is a possible marijuana-legalization measure on the 2020 ballot. If approved by voters, lawmakers would be powerless to alter it; a legislative solution, however, could be amended as needed.
Under the category of health, abortion legislation is a perennial at the Capitol.
Foes of abortion have had success in prior years imposing new restrictions and hurdles on the practice, ranging from waiting periods to questions that women have to be asked before they can terminate a pregnancy.
Several states already are pushing the legal boundaries, including some that are trying to make the practice illegal at 20 weeks — weeks before viability . Arizona lawmakers approved such a ban in 2012, only to have it struck down.
But abortion foes are hoping for different legal results, particularly with a pair of Trump appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court.